MARSHALL - It's a common piece of feedback she gets from educators, Minnesota Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius said: the provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind Act aren't the best way to get results for Minnesota schools. What's needed is a change of approach.
And if the state's application for a waiver from NCLB is accepted, Minnesota may get that change of approach, she said.
Cassellius visited Marshall on Tuesday, and spoke to an audience of educators, school administrators and school board members from around southwest Minnesota at Marshall High School. The main focus of the talk was explaining how an NCLB waiver would affect public schools in the state.
Minnesota is applying for a waiver from NCLB provisions, including the act's goal of having all students meet national proficiency standards by 2014, and penalties against schools not making adequate progress. In order for the application to be accepted, Cassellius said, the state must meet criteria like having high academic standards and a state system of accountability for schools.
Cassellius and Sam Kramer, a federal education policy specialist, emphasized that the waiver would not change current standardized testing or measurement of Adequate Yearly Progress.
"You can't waive the whole law," Cassellius said. "AYP will continue to be reported, but it's really more of a way to kind of take the temperature of the school."
However, Minnesota schools would no longer be penalized for not meeting those goals. Instead, she said, Minnesota would be able to use a better accountability system with more realistic goals.
"We wanted to find better ways to measure our schools, ones that we believe are fairer and more accurate, and provide better information," she said. Minnesota's schools are doing well overall, she said, but they need to find ways to reach underperforming groups of students.
Rather than labeling schools as failing for not meeting NCLB goals, Kramer said Minnesota schools could be placed into one of several categories, based on performance measures like graduation rate and reducing achievement gaps. The top 15 percent of schools would be designated "Reward Schools," and publicly recognized for their performance. The bottom 5 percent of schools would be designated "Priority Schools," and work directly with the state to improve their performance.
In addition, 10 percent of schools contributing to state achievement gaps would be designated "Focus Schools." Those schools would work together with their districts and the state to address the needs of low-performing student groups, including minority students, students from low-income families and special education students.
Only schools receiving Title I federal education funding would be considered for reward, priority or focus designation, Cassellius said.
Student growth and closing the achievement gap for students falling behind would be emphasized in the new system, Kramer said. One factor used to measure school performance would be how much students' performance improves over time, compared to predictions for their age group. To help close achievement gaps, improvement goals will be higher for students in groups that are underperforming.
The ultimate goal for the new system would be to reduce the achievement gap in Minnesota by 50 percent in six years, Cassellius said. It's still an ambitious goal, Cassellius and Kramer said, but it may be more workable than NCLB, and it allows the Minnesota Department of Education to work together with schools.
Cassellius and Kramer said they hope to hear back from the U.S. Department of Education in the spring. If the application is approved, there would be time to identify reward, priority and focus schools and shift to the new system by the 2012-2013 school year, they said.
More information on the waiver proposal is available at education.state.mn.us.